Invasive Species: A Menace to Nature and Economy

What’s the Big Deal with Invasive Species?

“Invasive species” doesn’t sound particularly threatening, but these unwelcome intruders, regardless of their size, wreak havoc on wildlife. In fact, invasive species are one of the major threats to native wildlife, with approximately 42 percent of endangered species facing risks due to their presence. But it doesn’t stop there—these invaders also endanger human health and economies. The detrimental impact of invasive species on our natural ecosystems and economy costs us billions of dollars every year. Our commercial, agricultural, and recreational activities heavily rely on the well-being of native ecosystems.

Understanding the Traits of Invasive Species

So, what classifies a species as “invasive”? Essentially, it refers to any living organism that is not native to a particular ecosystem and causes harm. This can include amphibians, plants, insects, fish, fungi, bacteria, or even the seeds or eggs of these organisms. Invasive species can harm the environment, economy, and even human health. They earn the “invasive” label if they possess characteristics such as rapid growth, aggressive spreading, and the potential to inflict harm.

Interestingly, an invasive species does not necessarily have to come from another country. For instance, lake trout, native to the Great Lakes, are considered invasive in Yellowstone Lake, Wyoming. This is because they compete with native cutthroat trout for habitat.

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The Path of Invasion: How Do Invasive Species Spread?

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, Shutterstock

Invasive species owe their spread primarily to human activities, often unintentionally. As we travel around the world, both we and the goods we carry frequently transport unwanted species with us. Ships, for instance, can harbor aquatic organisms in their ballast water, while smaller boats can inadvertently carry them on their propellers. Insects can hitch a ride in wood, shipping palettes, and crates that are shipped globally. Even ornamental plants have been known to escape into the wild and become invasive. And, of course, some invasive species are either intentionally or accidentally released pets. For instance, Burmese pythons have become a major problem in the Everglades.

Moreover, climate change also plays a role in the spread of invasive species. Higher temperatures and altered precipitation patterns allow certain invasive plant species, such as garlic mustard, kudzu, and purple loosestrife, to expand into new territories. Insect pests, like the mountain pine beetle, take advantage of drought-weakened plants, causing more severe infestations.

Native Wildlife in Jeopardy: The Threats Posed by Invasive Species

Invasive species pose a wide range of threats to wildlife. When an aggressive new species enters an ecosystem, it often lacks natural predators or controls. Consequently, it can rapidly breed and spread, eventually dominating the area. Native wildlife may not have evolved the necessary defenses against these invaders or possess the ability to compete with species that have no natural predators.

Direct threats from invasive species include preying on native species, outcompeting them for food and resources, transmitting diseases, and hindering native species’ reproduction and survival.

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Indirect threats also loom large. Invasive species can disrupt the food web by destroying or replacing native food sources, leaving little to no nutritional value for wildlife. Additionally, they can alter the abundance and diversity of species that serve as vital habitat for native wildlife. Aggressive plant species, like kudzu, can swiftly replace diverse ecosystems with a monoculture dominated by itself. Furthermore, invasive species are capable of changing ecosystem conditions, such as soil chemistry or the frequency of wildfires.

Notorious Examples of Invasive Species

Here are some noteworthy examples of invasive species:

  • Cogongrass: An Asian plant that arrived in the United States as seeds in packing material. It is rapidly spreading through the Southeast, displacing native plants. Cogongrass offers no food value for native wildlife and increases the risk of wildfire due to its ability to burn hotter and faster than native grasses.
  • Feral pigs: These voracious eaters consume anything in their path, including native birds. They compete with native wildlife for food sources like acorns and spread diseases like brucellosis to both humans and livestock. In fact, E. coli from their feces was linked to the contamination of baby spinach in 2006.
  • European green crabs: Originating from Europe, these crabs entered the San Francisco Bay area in 1989. They outcompete native species for food and habitat, and devour substantial amounts of native shellfish, jeopardizing commercial fisheries.
  • Dutch elm disease: Caused by the fungus Ophiostoma ulmi, this disease is transmitted to trees by elm bark beetles. Since 1930, it has spread from Ohio to most parts of the country, resulting in the death of over half of the elm trees in the northern United States.
  • Water hyacinth: This beautiful aquatic plant was introduced to the U.S. from South America as an ornamental. However, in the wild, it forms dense mats, blocking sunlight for underwater plants and aquatic organisms. It also crowds out native aquatic plants, clogs waterways and intake pipes, causing significant problems.
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Curbing the Invasion: What Can We Do?

One way to combat the spread of invasive species is by planting native plants and removing any invasive species from your garden. Thankfully, there are plenty of native plant alternatives to the common exotic ornamental plants. Additionally, familiarize yourself with invasive species in your area and promptly report any sightings to your county extension agent or local land manager.

Regularly cleaning your boots, gear, boat, tires, and other outdoor equipment is also crucial. By doing so, you can remove insects and plant parts that may inadvertently introduce invasive species to new locations. When camping, it’s better to buy firewood near your campsite, within a 30-mile radius, rather than bringing your own from home. This precaution reduces the risk of transporting invertebrates and plants that may hitch a ride on the firewood and introduce invasive species to new areas.

By taking these small yet significant steps, we can play our part in minimizing the destructive impact of invasive species on ecosystems and economies.

To learn more about invasive species and other fascinating topics, visit 5 WS.

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